Checkout my article over at ForeignPolicy.com, Censoring the Voice of America: Why is it OK to broadcast terrorist propaganda but not taxpayer-funded media reports?
Earlier this year, a community radio station in Minneapolis asked Voice of America (VOA) for permission to retransmit its news coverage on the increasingly volatile situation in Somalia. The VOA audio files it requested were freely available online without copyright or any licensing requirements. The radio station’s intentions were simple enough: Producers hoped to offer an informative, Somali-language alternative to the terrorist propaganda that is streaming into Minneapolis, where the United States’ largest Somali community resides. Over the last year or more, al-Shabab, an al Qaeda linked Somali militia, has successfully recruited two dozen or more Somali-Americans to return home and fight. The radio station was grasping for a remedy.
It all seemed straightforward enough until VOA turned down the request for the Somali-language programming. In the United States, airing a program produced by a U.S. public diplomacy radio or television station such as VOA is illegal. Oddly, though, airing similar programs produced by foreign governments — or even terrorist groups — is not. As a result, the same professional journalists, editors, and public diplomacy officers whom we trust to inform and engage the world are considered more threatening to Americans than terrorist propaganda — like the stuff pouring into Minneapolis. …
In an age where a teenager with a keyboard can wield more influence than an F-22 Raptor, the time has long past for the United States to change its public diplomacy and communications strategy accordingly. …
Read the whole thing at ForeignPolicy.com. More information related to the article is below.
The irony, as some readers have pointed out offline, is that the community radio station could have just downloaded the audio files and rebroadcast them. They are, after all, government products and thus in the public domain, hence the line in the article about without copyright or license. In an earlier draft of the article was the example of a Washington, D.C., area radio station (WFED, 1500 AM) doing just that last year through sometime early this year when they rebroadcast six hours of VOA material 10a – 1p Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It seems to many of us that VOANews is increasingly used a source in the print media. Which is technically illegal, but why? It is also noteworthy that we’re seeing a seeming increase in US media citing VOANews. As of yet it’s still a subjective view (noticed by many), but a friend is doing a study on it. These citations are illegal under current law but the intent of the law until the initial change in 1972 by Senator Fulbright who declared America’s international broadcasting as “Cold War relics.”
With specific regard to the firewall, it is important to understand that the prohibition on domestic dissemination was to protect the Government and the public from the State Department, not the public from the Government. The legislation was debated and passed in a era where Congress was constantly telling State to remove socialists and Communist and Soviet sympathizers (this article “The American Twang“ in Time may be enlightening). It was a time where Congress was so upset with the quality of America’s international broadcasting that it slashed funding by 50% (sound familiar?).
Interesting factoid: the concern over the State Department’s loyalty was such that a Congressman suggested that VOA scripts be reviewed by the Daughters of the American Revolution prior to broadcast.
The popular belief today (and for the last two or more decades) has been the prohibition was the “Anti-Goebbels” provision to prevent the Government from propagandizing the American public. In reality, there were two other provisions in the Act that addressed that issue directly. The first was the requirement that State (remember this was a State Department function not a White House function) maximize its use of private resources, which included both material and transmission capabilities. The other was a prohibition on the creation of a monopoly – a key to the effectiveness of both Nazi propaganda in Germany before World War II and the Committee of Public Information (or CPI or Creel Commission) in the US in the lead up to World War I.
For deep background on the intent of the 79th and 80th Congress that debated and ultimately passed the Smith-Mundt Act for President Truman’s signature in January 1948, see the draft paper Rethinking Smith-Mundt (140kb PDF) to be revised and expanded soon.
See also these related posts:
- Smith-Mundt Symposium: A Discourse to Shape America’s Discourse
- Is Social Media More Trustworthy than Voice of America?
- Broadcasting Board of Governors: empty seats at the public diplomacy table
- In America? Smith-Mundt means no SMS updates on the President’s Ghana speech for you!
- Senator Edward Zorinsky and Banning Domestic Dissemination by USIA in 1985
- Smith-Mundt: Myths, Facts, and Recommendations